The Vivian Maier Mystery

| December 22, 2013

The Vivian Maier Mystery is a fascinating documentary that uncovers the life of Vivian Maier, a nanny working in New York and Chicago who, unbeknownst to many, had a secret passion for photography. When she died in 2009 at age 83, she left behind thousands of photographs and an incredible body of work that now lives on and established her as one of the century’s master street photographers.

The Vivian Maier Mystery uncovers the story behind the woman behind the camera. This documentary, which included interviews of many of Maier’s charges for whom she cared in her work as a nanny, moved me and disturbed me a bit, because the subject appeared to be a private woman. Now in her discovery and death,  she is being heralded as a master street photographer, who took a few “selfies” of herself, even.

I don’t doubt that she was a master street photographer, because that is evident in her work. But, as one person noted in the documentary, at the time that Maier was taking her photographs, they would have been dismissed as simply snapshots. Upon her death, or nearing the time of her death, she could no longer pay the storage fee on a few lockers that she owned, and when folks came to buy the contents of the locker, her more than 100,000 photographs were discovered.

Born in New York in 1926, Maier has been described as a woman of “intrigue, deception and mystery.” She told folks that she was born in France, but she did live in France for a few years back and forth, before settling back in New York in 1951 and then later moving to the far North Side of Chicago. Maier worked as a nanny for a family in Winnetka, and she took many photos of regular life: the kids, the parents with the kids, etc.

Jim Dempsey, who once ran a theater and who now runs an art gallery in Chicago, befriended Maier, saying that she saw movies about three or four times a month. He describes Maier as “quirky and seeming close to homeless.”

Others in the documentary admit that Maier was private and though interested in other people’s lives, little was known about hers. Jeff Goldstein remarked that Maier would probably not be happy to know that folks are delving into her life, trying to pull back every layer in an effort to understand her.

One of Maier’s last jobs was with the Ginsberg family, whose employ she left in the late 1960’s. It was around this time, according to the documentary, that she became disillusioned with taking photos within the city. Prior to this era, she would take photos of scenes in different neighborhoods; scenes from downtown, which I just loved to see, because they reminded me of places that I frequented as a young teen. But after the riots in the late 1960’s, it was noted in the documentary that Maier didn’t see the beauty anymore; it was mostly garbage and sad headlines on the newspapers that were hawked from downtown newsstands.

Out of the many photos, one that caught my eye was one that Maier took of acclaimed painter Salvador Dali outside of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in January of 1952. It is assumed that she had attended an exhibit of the great artist’s work, as well. She took one of him giving a lady an autograph, and she followed him and took one of him alone with her Rolleiflex camera.

And although I am vexing about how this woman would view all of this introspection into her life, one good part of the documentary was when a woman with whom Maier lived in France was given a photo that Maier had taken of the woman’s mother. The mother owned a bake shop, and the lady noted that the picture showed her mother in a calm state, as opposed to the hurried condition in which she was normally in while running the business. She was grateful to have received this photo. This made me misty eyed, and when I get misty eyed, I say it’s a good film!

Maier’s photographs are on display in exhibits throughout the country and around the world. To learn more about this magnificent photographer—whether she approves or not—and to watch The Vivian Maier Mystery, which is directed by Jill Nicholls, on VOD or other formats, visit

About the Author:

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago. She is the author of "Old School Adventures from Englewood--South Side of Chicago" and the proud parent of "the smart rapper"--chemist-turned-rapper, turned humanitarian...Psalm One!
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